Interview with American Buffalo director Hal Park

Don’t miss the WFPL story by Erin Keane on American Buffalo by David Mamet, directed by Hal Park and featuring Elliot Cornett, Jacob Lyle, and Ben Park. 

The director of this production answered our questions about this play, his experience, and more. Check out the epistolary interview below:

Do you have any particular favorite contemporary playwrights? Any reason Mamet is/isn’t on that list?

HP: I have always appreciated Mamet and found  the strength of his plays to be in the poetry and phrasing of his language. He is harsh and humorous. Some people will be offended by the harshness of the language, but his subject matter is compelling.  So the harshness of the language is not a good excuse to not explore the richness of this piece. I compare him to Pinter and Ionesco and Guare who are “language based” playwrights that I also enjoy.  Or, think of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.  These are plays and playwrights that could hold their audience with actors sitting on stools doing a staged reading.

Why did you pick up directing this play?

HP: My son, Ben Park, who is a Walden alum and recent graduate of conservatory program for acting, came to me and asked me to consider directing it.  He and the other actors, Jacob Lyles and Elliot Cornett (also Walden alums) chose this play because they wanted to wrestle with Mamet and couldn’t find a director.  As it turns out I had stage managed the West Coast Premiere of American Buffalo in 1978 shortly after Mamet wrote it.  I still had my stage manager’s script in a box of past projects.

What are the particular challenges of directing/performing Mamet?

HP: Whew!  Mamet is hard.  You cannot let up.  He is intense, irreverent, fast, smart.  The challenge for us is how to find the relevance of the play in the 21st century – with young actors.   The two main roles were written in the 70’s for guys that are in their 40’s or 50’s.  It was a different time in America.  But you don’t dare touch the language.  But, I find that the danger inherent in the script is still very real for our society today…..and by having three punked-out kids play the roles…it makes it even more relevant than a traditional staging. And wait ‘till you hear the original, noise-punk music track between the acts.  It’s a stretch, but we are pretty excited about the production.

The language in American Buffalo is tight and often vicious. Are there any tricks to pulling this off and maintaining the natural, vulgar poetry of the dialogue?

HP: It is like doing Shakespeare.  You have to trust the language and then go hard for it.  The poetry leaps off the page and out of the mouths of the actors….if we get the timing right it will be riveting.

Did American Buffalo (or Mamet more broadly) mark any kind of change in dramatic writing or performance (whether as groundbreaking themselves or as consequences of some other major shift)?

HP: I’m not a dramaturge but I think it did.  I remember when the play first came out and we did it in LA.  I don’t think anyone had ever really done what Mamet had done…..that street language….that down and dirty side of life had always been, sort of, romanticized in my mind.  Now, this is not to take anything away from others that were writing about the same time and addressing these issues…..but Mamet was like this crashing cocophony to me.